President Donald Trump’s choice of Rep. John Ratcliffe to replace respected former Sen. Dan Coats as director of national intelligence in one of the most powerful and sensitive jobs in government has received a tepid response from Republican senators, signaling the Texas Republican, a Trump loyalist who lacks intelligence experience, could face a fight to be confirmed.
But Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr said Monday evening he would work to get Ratcliffe confirmed once he was formally nominated, signaling Ratcliffe will have a key advocate that could help sway any wavering senators.
The handful of GOP senators who released statements about the coming transition atop the US intelligence apparatus mostly praised the professionalism and integrity of the departing Coats, without mentioning Ratcliffe. Republican senators told reporters Monday that they knew little about the four-term Texas Republican and would have to learn more about his views and record before making a judgment on Ratcliffe’s selection.
“I don’t know John. I’ve met him a couple times, see him on TV,” said Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin. “We’ll have to wait and see what his full background will be.”
“I truly don’t know him at all. I had never heard his name until last week. So, I don’t have any opinion yet,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a key moderate Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will handle Ratcliffe’s nomination when he is nominated, mostly declined to weigh in on Ratcliffe.
He released a statement praising Coats on Sunday. “I was reassured knowing that a man who took such a deliberate, thoughtful, and unbiased approach was at the helm of our intelligence community,” McConnell said in that statement.
GOP Sen. John Cornyn, a Senate Intelligence Committee member and fellow Texan, praised Ratcliffe’s selection. Cornyn said he does have some concerns about Ratcliffe’s lack of experience in intelligence but said he holds the congressman in “high regard.”
“Admittedly, I mean, he doesn’t, you know, he’s been a US attorney. He hasn’t been on the (House Intelligence Committee) for that long, but I think, you know, how many DNIs have we had? Maybe two? Two or three? It wasn’t even created until post-9/11,” said Cornyn. “I have confidence he’ll do a good job.”
The New York Times reported that Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, “cautioned the President’s advisers that he considered Mr. Ratcliffe too political for the post, according to people familiar with the discussions.”
But a source familiar with the matter disputed the Times’ characterization, telling CNN that Burr did not offer the White House any guidance about their nominee, and that Burr did not give his personal opinion of Ratcliffe.
Burr said Monday evening that he had spoken to Ratcliffe for the first time on Sunday after his selection, and signaled he would back the nomination when it comes to his committee. Asked about Ratcliffe’s lack of intelligence experience, Burr pointed to both his committee work in Congress and his history of prosecuting terrorism cases as a US attorney.
“I talked to him last night for the first time, but he comes with great recommendations from the people that know him,” Burr said. “Can you find somebody that’s got more experience that’s got more experience specifically in the intelligence community? Sure, but I’m not sure that the DNI requires that. So if I get a formal nomination I will work aggressively to make sure that John Ratcliffe is confirmed.”
While it’s far too early to know if Ratcliffe, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is endangered, Burr’s opinion is sure to carry weight with rank-and-file Republican senators who were comforted with the gravitas and heft that Coats – who as a senator was a member of the Intelligence Committee – brought to the post, especially when he clashed with Trump on key intelligence matters.
Democrats concerned about politicizing intelligence
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, did not weigh in on Ratcliffe specifically but told reporters he was concerned about the politicization of the intelligence community.
“When we are seeing unprecedented attacks against our democracy, and when we’re seeing not just Russia but eventually others find ways to manipulate news, information – boy, oh boy, if there’s ever a time that we’ve got to make sure that our intelligence isn’t politicized, it’s now,” the Virginia Democrat said.
Maine Independent Sen. Angus King said he was reserving judgment on Ratcliffe until he learned more. “The question is whether he can enter into the job with that as his attitude and whether he’s willing to tell the President something he doesn’t want to hear if that’s what the facts hold,” King said.
The Senate’s No. 2 Republican John Thune of South Dakota said he will wait for the confirmation hearings to make a judgment, but noted Ratcliffe has “really good credentials” and pointed to the many “sensitive cases” he prosecuted as a US Attorney.
Asked if he thought Ratcliffe, a Trump ally, would push back on Trump if needed, like Coats did, Thune said, “We need that in that position. I’m sure that will be one of the questions he asked when he comes up for confirmation. One thing we all appreciated about Dan Coats was the he was willing to speak the truth. And in that position, you’ve really got to have that. It’s a key quality we’re looking for.”
Senate Republicans still learning about Ratcliffe
But Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican also on the intelligence panel, said that Democrats would try to make political hay on whether Ratcliffe could push back against the President, but he argued that wasn’t the job he was tapped for.
“I don’t know about pushback. It’s not the job of the DNI to push back against the President. It’s to run the intelligence apparatus and get you to the truth,” Rubio said. “It’s supposed to tell you what the proper assessment is and more importantly to make sure the entire Intelligence Community is working in an apolitical way.”
Sen. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican, underscored GOP senators’ uncertainty surrounding Trump’s pick, responding to questions on Ratcliffe with praise for Coats and saying repeatedly that he doesn’t know anything about Ratcliffe.
“To be honest, I really don’t know anything about the gentleman, the congressman, he’s talking about selecting,” Boozman told CNN on Monday. “You know, this was kind of a sudden thing. So that’s something that we’ll be looking at.”
GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said Ratcliffe is a “qualified congressman,” but said “I don’t know anything about his background to be head of … Intelligence.”
Some Republican senators may have seen Ratcliffe in the public eye for the first time just last week when the conservative congressman last week made a high-profile challenge to former special counsel Robert Mueller at his hearings, while defending Trump.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer slammed the choice of Ratcliffe, saying he is a “partisan player” who “exhibited blind loyalty” to Trump when he took on Mueller. Schumer’s views signal Democrats are unlikely to provide many – if any – votes for Ratcliffe.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate. That means if Democrats stand together against Ratcliffe, Republicans can lose no more than three GOP senators and still get him confirmed with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.
CNN’s Sarah Fortinsky contributed to this report.